Movie Review: The Osterman Weekend (1983)
“What would you do if a total stranger proved to you that your three closest friends were Soviet Agents?”
The Osterman Weekend (1983)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Rutger Hauer, John Hurt, Craig T. Nelson
Synopsis: A TV reporter is informed that his three best friends are part of a Soviet spy ring.
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A description of just one brief scene from The Osterman Weekend, the final movie from maverick director Sam Peckinpah, should serve to illustrate just how truly wretched this sorry thriller is. Political chat show host John Tanner (Rutger Hauer – Blade Runner, Batman Begins), is that breed of fearless interviewer who, with one or two incisive questions, can tie high-ranking government officials in knots. He and his wife (Meg Foster – 31) are entertaining three of Tanner’s friends and their wives for the weekend shortly after he has received intelligence from CIA agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt – Midnight Express, Alien) that they are suspected of being members of a Soviet spy ring called Omega. It’s Tanner’s job to unmask them as such over the course of the weekend while, sitting in a nearby trailer, Fassett observes everything via a network of skilfully concealed surveillance cameras which record every movement and word of the unsuspecting guests. Fassett is able to issue instructions to Tanner as events unfold via the portable television in his kitchen, which broadcasts images of him at his console in the trailer.
This is exactly what he’s doing when Tanner’s three suspect friends, who have by now begun to question his motives, enter the kitchen and engage him in conversation. From his vantage point on the counter in the corner of the kitchen, Fassett spies the three of them and hesitantly begins delivering a lengthy impromptu weather forecast. It’s supposed to be a moment of high suspense, but is a farcical mess that comes across like a sketch from the Two Ronnies in which Ronnie One sits behind the detached frame of a dismantled TV and, for reasons I forget, pretends to be a newsreader to shortsighted Ronnie Two.
The Osterman Weekend was Peckinpah’s first movie in five years, and you get the impression he took the job because he badly needed the work. According to Roger Ebert, he complained once again that the editing process was taken out of his hands but insisted it was still a pretty good movie. He was wrong. It’s sloppy and slapdash, and an unfortunate addition to his body of work. The narrative thread is badly frayed, although, in its defence, is not as confusing as some have claimed, even though there’s a lot of cat-and-mouse games and conversations which are loaded with hidden meanings that make little sense. Much of the action is viewed through surveillance cameras that cut to different angles and close ups in a way that stationery cameras are unable to do. An unnecessary car chase one suspects is included for no other reason than to prevent the movie from becoming too talky is so poorly filmed and edited that it’s almost embarrassing to watch, and it’s tempting to believe that the plentiful shots of naked female flesh are Peckinpah’s attempt to divert our attention from the awfulness of it all.
At least his work was still sufficiently celebrated to attract an impressive collection of actors, which explains the presence of names like Hurt and Burt Lancaster (The Gypsy Moths, Zulu Dawn). Dennis Hopper (Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider) and Chris Sarandon (Dog Day Afternoon, The Sentinel) are largely wasted as two of Tanner’s friends, while Craig T. Nelson’s (The Formula, All the Right Moves) character, the producer of Tanner’s TV show and his best friend, undergoes an unlikely change from conservative businessman to rugged action hero when things become violent in the film’s final act. Unfortunately, Hauer never seems comfortable as Tanner, a notional hero beset by doubts and anxiety, and yet often comes across as disagreeable supercilious.
The Osterman Weekend can only be described as a disappointing hack job from Peckinpah, and it’s a sad way for a great director to bow out – but, given his haphazard and self-destructive lifestyle, it’s kind of appropriate.
(Reviewed 12th November 2016)